Betty-Ann's Both Sides Blog

Learning To Say No

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Learning to say NO to others can be a YES to yourself. This little one syllable word is simple to pronounce but often very difficult for women to say. The problem is that if we say YES to everyone else we end up working on their priorities and never advance our own. A perfect example came from a reader as follows:

“I find it difficult to say no to colleagues because I don’t want to be perceived as negative. I often go above and beyond to help others, even when I know it’s grunt work assigned to me because I am reliable. By doing this, they save their time for more glorifying work, but for me it’s tiring and unproductive, to say the least. Feeling that I have established myself as a team player, I have been resisting this type of pressure lately, but I don’t feel like I am doing it effectively. I fake a smile and carry on with my regular tasks. However, it wears me down emotionally. Also, because of my pushback to doing these types of tasks, I am afraid of being labeled uncooperative. Can you shed some light on how men might handle this differently?”

Saying No is seldom an issue for men but is very difficult for women. Both boys and girls learned to say NO as two-year olds, but as we were growing up boys were socialized to stand up for themselves as individuals while girls were expected to be compliant. Thus, women are often afraid to say NO in case they aren’t liked- they put accept all assignments as if there were no alternative and they work harder than their head down and plow onward.

Men are much more strategic. They know that it’s all about who you say YES and NO to and which work you agree to do. They also treat all assignments as a negotiation, asking for more time for tasks, to be included in meetings where the task will be discussed, or for permission to adjust their workload by dropping another assignment.

By appearing to agree but then not doing the work, our reader is going to be considered passive-aggressive. My Mom was a career woman at a time when it was uncommon to be so. She told me that when faced with a difficult situation, she would think to herself, “What would a man do in this circumstance?” And her answer most often was that they would confront things openly. I used this advice early in my working life when I found myself being the brunt of work overload with yet another assignment being foisted on me. I said to my boss, “I can certainly do that, and I’ll have to drop something else. Let’s discuss what would be best.” I remember the look of surprise on his face but also the satisfaction I felt as we discussed on more even ground the project workload and deadlines.

Here’s some ideas for learning to say NO:

1) When you say YES, be sure you mean it. There is nothing that eats away at your energy levels more than the resentment of not saying what you mean. It’s easier to say “yes” than “no,” and that’s what gets us in trouble. Women need to learn to say NO to others but also learn not to take NO as an answer.

2) Treat every assignment as a negotiation. Don’t be afraid to ask for things for yourself. You’ll be amazed to find that it is respected if you confront things openly. Being compliant can be a negotiation strategy, but be sure you are doing it without contempt.

3) Practice saying NO by getting your lines ready in advance. For example, you might try deflecting the request by suggesting someone with less on their plate. Have the name and recommendation ready.

4) Consider the source. Align yourself with those of influence by saying YES to them and NO to those where the potential payback will be minimal. Choose to say YES to activities that fill you with energy and NO to those that drain you.

5) Don’t confuse things by giving a NO which can be confused with a YES such as “I’d really like to but….”. Instead be polite but firm and keep your answer concise. Never over explain.

6) Make NO your initial position. It is easier to change your answer from No to YES than YES to NO.

7) USE Humour. For example, you can say, “No I can’t do it as I have two big things on my plate- singing lessons for my part in the opera and skiing practice if I am going to make the Olympics”.

Friends and associates will ask for all kinds of things. Rather than dismiss them, it is important to respect what they are asking for but also give them an honest NO. The goal here is to keep from depleting your energy bank account and a good way to do that is to learn to confidently shake your head from side to side!

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